As someone with a couple of 5Ks under her belt, sidelined while training for a half marathon due to iliotibial band syndrome, I’m all too familiar with the strains placed upon the human body during training for any sort of endurance event. WHAT? Running is hard and makes things ouchy.
While it’s clear I’ll never (not that I was ever under any illusion that I would) be an Olympian, there are real, actual athletes in the world who put in the grueling time and effort to achieve that goal. From childhood, they rose at the crack of dawn to train before school. Weekends were dedicated to traveling from matches to meets, competitions to semifinals. It’s a goal that requires so much dedication, it can’t be achieved alone. Olympians don’t become Olympians without the support of the teams behind them, including the parent who’s up with them at 4:30 am and cheering them on through every event.
Even then, every Olympic hopeful can’t make it all the way. Some will watch their Olympic dreams shatter, having worked so hard and pushed through every injury, because someone else was just .28 seconds faster. Others will walk away devastated, having made one silly mistake they hadn’t made in months of training. It’s all the more devastating when an athlete never gets to realize his Olympic potential.
Alexander Dale Oen, a swimmer and one of Norway’s biggest medal hopefuls at this summer’s London Olympics, died of cardiac arrest this week at a pre-Olympic training camp in Flagstaff, AZ. After a light training session followed by golf, Dale Oen was found by his teammates on his bathroom floor and pronounced dead shortly thereafter. He would have been 27 years old this month. While an investigation is underway, there were no signs of trauma or foul play according to Flagstaff police.
Three days after the 2011 Norway attacks that killed 77 people, mostly children, Dale Oen competed in the 100M breaststroke in the world championships in Shanghai. He won with a time of 58.71 seconds, the fourth fastest time in history.
“He really put his country on his shoulders for that race,” said Mark Gangloff, an American who was nearly two seconds off Dale Oen’s pace and finished eighth in the race. “It was a rallying point for that country to come together.” The day he died, Dale Oen had taken to Twitter to express that he was looking forward to heading back home after training.
Dale Oen is, sadly, not the first athlete to have his Olympic dream cut short by tragedy. Just this January, Sarah Burke, a Canadian freestyle skier and pioneer of the superpipe event, succumbed to injuries sustained during a training accident. Burke fell onto her head after completing a trick and went into cardiac arrest. The damage to her brain due to lack of oxygen and blood was irreversible. Burke was just 29 years old when she died.
Sarah Burke successfully lobbied the International Olympic Committee to have the halfpipe — an event for which she won the world championship in 2005 — added to the program for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
In February 2010, 21-year-old Nodar Kumaritashvili, a Georgian luger, died on the day of the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics, when he crashed during a training run. He was the fourth athlete to die during the Winter Games, after Nicolas Bochatay, who died in Albertville in 1992 after a collision while speed skiing. He was 27. Bochatay’s death followed those of Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki and Ross Milne, a luger and a downhill skier, respectively, who both died in 1964 in Innsbruck. The Summer Games have known their share of tragedy with the deaths of Knut Jensen, Francisco Lazaro, and Nicolae Berechet between 1912 and 1960.
My heart goes out to the families of these amazing young people who never gave up in the pursuit of their dreams and came so, so close to realizing them. Few things in life are more tragic, or honorable.